Somewhere in public memory, in the ether of our collective consciousness as well as actual information sources we can access in mere seconds, there’s a catalogue of musical event-based catastrophes. Occasional stories of live shows that turned into tragedies and reveal the potential lethality of crowds.
The earliest in contemporary music, but still one of the deadliest, happened when The Who performed at a venue called the Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1979. The disaster happened even before the show, when ticketholders stampeded into the venue as soon as the doors opened. Eleven people were trampled from asphyxiation. The band had no idea of what had happened (although their manager did) and continued to play the entire show.
In 2000, where about 50,000 people came to Roskilde to see Pearl Jam perform, the band stopped playing when the news of safety issues reached them onstage. After the crowd receded and security was able to inspect the situation more closely, they found that eight young men had died from suffocation in the mosh pit. A ninth died in the hospital.
Later in the 1990s was a second Woodstock—begrudgingly referred to as “Woodstock ’99.” Cable TV audiences at the time, then mainstream news, watched in bewilderment at the wild-at-the-time anecdotes and clips about the massive music festival with more than 200,000 in attendance. There was injury, dehydration, shameless corporate upselling, and furious mud flinging. Three people died, a fact that seems somewhat overshadowed by tidbits like the $5 bottle of water. Unlike the namesake, original Woodstock festival in 1969, where a cool half-million people showed up, Woodstock ‘99 was declared a complete and utter mistake. Something pop culture seemed to want us to forget but continues to live on as a cautionary tale.
But none of these quite compare to what happened in Astroworld on November 5, 2021. And thanks to social media, the tragedy is arguably the most visible and well documented of all these stories. In the end, ten people died and over three hundred were injured at the Astroworld music festival that day.
While it factors in much of the same plot points—like the inherently the punk aspirations of a show with a mosh pit at odds with corporate support and, occasionally, negligence, aided and abetted by improper safety planning—it somehow feels a lot more ominous.
A project of the rapper and singer Travis Scott, the Astroworld music festival launched in 2018. It is dually named after Scott’s third album and the location of a former theme park on the NRG Park grounds in Scott’s hometown of Houston, Texas. Meant to be annual (it halted for 2020 due to the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic), it’s been a largely hip-hop lineup with heavy-hitting names. In addition to Scott, the lineup of that first day included Master P, Roddy Rich, Lil Baby, SZA, and Drake, who made a surprise appearance to perform alongside Scott.
Prior to Astroworld 2021, Scott was known for holding high-energy, stylized shows that would be fair to describe as purposely chaotic. Scott, who has a lifelong affinity for pro wrestling, purposely set out to create an atmosphere at his shows similar to that of the big, televised wrestling matches, in terms of attitude and volume and--of course--energy (more on this later). He refers to his fans as "ragers."
In fact, Scott had been in legal trouble for the way he interacts with concert crowds well before Astroworld 2021. He was charged with disorderly conduct at Lollapalooza in 2015 and arrested and sued multiple times in the years following for similar behavior at concerts.
It didn't really seem to affect his popularity or his business in a negative way. In fact, in 2020 Travis Scott entered into a $20 million partnership with McDonald's, famously the first celebrity deal of its kind since Michael Jordan in the 1990s. This belies the fact that Scott’s audience is young, mostly in their teens and twenties. Some, however, including those present that horrible day, were even younger.
For the event scheduled for November 5 and 6, 2021, which sold out in less than an hour months prior, the crowds couldn’t seem to arrive early enough that first day. There were two stages, except for Scott’s performance. Everyone seemed to be there to watch him headline that night. This was emphasized by the giant clock placed on the festival grounds that counted down to the performance.
As a matter of fact, the countdown clock was cited by many as a driving factors of the mayhem that ensued. As it ticked down ever closer to Scott’s performance time, fans quickened their steps to get to the front of the general admission venue in order to get the best spot possible. Basic concert rules, but there had also been red flags leading up to this moment, according to many reports from those who were there.
Well before Scott’s headlining performance, attendees reported being crushed as the crowd became grew and became tighter. Reports also depicted a combined staff of police and private security that was not nearly big enough to handle the roving, increasingly hostile crowd, some of whom fully expected to be able to mosh—aka dance—to a favorite musical artist.
The elaborate fire-and-brimstone set design that marked the end of the countdown to Scott’s performance has been discussed at length as even that became part of the examination of just what went wrong. At some point, the time got pushed back a bit (another potential factor) and soon people were running to the fill up the venue. When Travis Scott came onstage, the crowed was pressed so tightly together that no one was able to move their arms, and some even had trouble breathing as their lungs were pressed in from the outside. Some of them were able to—and did—move their legs to the music. The crowd was moshing, but it was also at the mercy of the excessively condensed crowd.
The atmosphere shifted from anticipation to panic as the set went on. As seen and heard in the videos, many started calling, screaming for help. Those who were located near barricades or other interruptions in the crowd tried to climb them, and most of them were shoved off by security, who were later revealed to be hastily hired and badly trained.
When the crowd surged, some audience members were pulled under completely and trampled underfoot, as well as lost ability to breathe. Police declared it a “mass casualty event” well before the set was over.
Through all of this, the entire world was witnessing the events through social media videos and posts (most notably TikTok). The content and footage of and about Astroworld unraveled immediately for a social media audience that was already in the throes of the pandemic. It conveyed people in serious danger, begging concert staff as well as those in the outside world for help. Even Travis Scott himself, who reportedly did pause the set early on, but not later, when circumstances were even more dire (he claimed not to have heard).
Another entity tied to the event was Apple Music, which was there to livestream for millions watching, many of them homebound because of the pandemic. Last but not least, the promotion company, Live Nation, who was responsible for hiring and training said security, among other aspects of the event planning.
The Conspiracy Theories
Alongside anecdotal accounts and timelines, a persistent commentary began to form. It had to do with the imagery of the event, of the music, and of Travis Scott as a performer. People claimed the frequency of the music was off. That it held some sort of destructive power over the audience. This may have started with people who actually attended the event who interpreted the events as being energetically driven as well as logically unsafe, and now posting from relative safety. Regardless, the dialogue was taken over by metaphysical concepts rather quickly and ruthlessly.
The conspiracy theories (a term which, itself, is considered offensive by some folks who explore it as a hobby and consider themselves to be more like "truth seekers") are numerous. Stories multiplied in the days after the event, and just as many articles were published to keep the public updated on the news. Almost, but not quite, as plentiful was the content dedicated to fact-checking these stories.
Some conspiracy theories were more down-to-earth, or logistical, than others but no less horrifying--more like rumors, such as the one in which a security guard was attacked and injected by a needle containing a mysterious drug. In another iteration of the rumor, multiple concertgoers were injected. Some claimed the drugs were hallucinogenic, others opioid, and still others said it was unknown. All of the above remains unconfirmed.
Other stories about what happened at Astroworld were strictly paranormal in nature. As they infiltrated social media, transferred across posts, accounts, and platforms, the tales grew longer, created new extensions.
The main conspiracy theory was that Astroworld was not just a concert for the purpose of entertaining fans and making money, but a demonic ritual led by Scott himself as a "high priest" to conduct a sacrifice and the festival site a "gate to hell." Some even pointed to Scott's association with Kylie Jenner and the whole Kardashian family as further evidence of this, considering the latter comes with a whole other set of rumors and conspiracy theories of their own.
One especially convoluted rumor combines the scientific with the paranormal, supposing that the concert was an experiment to turn vaccinated audience members into zombies, involving a substance called graphene oxide that somehow interacts with the frequencies in the music.
Speaking of frequencies: fans themselves have accused music that played throughout the festival of utilizing a frequency designed to make the audience experience fear and anxiety—the "fear frequency." On TikTok, multiple people attributed the strange-sounding music they'd heard throughout the day of the concert to the fear frequency. As all music contains frequencies, this one has the potential to technically not be wrong. But neither does it necessarily correlate to demonic activity.
As authorities were trying to figure out the events and circumstances leading up to and causing the eventual ten deaths and numerous injuries, this spread of misinformation took a wider turn when larger platforms, outlets, and personalities weighed in. Even Ace Frehley of ancient rock band Kiss weighed in on the situation saying that it seemed “like a Satantic ritual gone very wrong.”
It didn’t exactly help that the music, imagery, and overall branding of the event and of Scott as a musician incorporated leans incredibly esoteric, begging audience to find multiple meanings in the lyrics.
Folks also chimed in on these discussions with the intent to point out the rumors, and anyone propagating them, as disrespectful to the victims and their families. But either way, the conversation began on social media from the moment the unrest and suffering began that night. They continued all during and after the event itself, processed by so many—the 50,000 individuals who attended in person, the millions watching the livestream, and finally—and in a way, most influentially--those just commenting about it online.
Astroworld, as well as Travis Scott and Drake and Apple Music and McDonald’s and the Kardashians and TikTok, encapsulate how we as a society collectively experience death and injury. How we use our familiarity with these things to draw our own connections to them and come back to the group. How we tend to use such events to make our own moral statements to ourselves and our communities.
It's also that news travels faster than it ever did. People are recording their own experiences and discussing them right as they’re happening. About how this is a huge part of how we connect to one another, and, for better or worse, how we receive attention and fulfillment. Even if it's about something as dismal as a music festival where people died, were seriously injured, and traumatized. And the countless others witnessing all this trauma from the ether, all those people panicking for their lives.
Astroworld combined a punk aesthetic with transparent corporate motivations, tapping into so much of the public's interests at once that it ultimately was too big a promise. Audiences getting the short end of the stick on quality, time, or money is nothing new. We're just narrating it on our (social media) timelines now.
It failed its audience, emphatically, and its end of the silent pact we make with concerts when we go to them—that we won't be physically harmed. Not without consent.
In other words, they could have planned a much safer event—from the venue layout, to the security personnel, to the number of tickets sold, and so on—and still kept it raging. But even in the present day, we’re not immune to seeing dangerous situations unfolding in place of what’s meant to be music and fun.
In the meantime, Scott, Live Nation, Apple, and possibly other companies are being sued by the 300 victims and their families through the Houston state court for a combined total of $2 billion.
For more information about staying safe, check out our NSFW Guide to Festivals, as well as the work of Dance Safe, a non-profit harm reduction group working in the dance and festival communities. Make sure to grab a set of EARPEACE music earplugs for your next show. Hearing protection to enhance your experience and keep your hearing protected.